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Making America: A History of the United States, Brief Second Edition
Carol Berkin, Christopher L. Miller, Robert W. Cherny, James L. Gormly, W. Thomas Mainwaring
Primary Sources

Introduction | Questions to Consider | Source

Southern Skepticism of the Freedmen's Bureau
James D. B. De Bow

James D. B. De Bow published a commercial and agricultural journal in New Orleans in which he advocated industrialization for the South as a means to revive the economy, reduce the South's dependence on Northern goods, and mitigate the North's criticism of slavery. As a publisher attuned to and familiar with economic conditions in the South, De Bow was asked by the House Committee on Reconstruction to give an assessment of the Freedmen's Bureau's effectiveness.

Questions to Consider
  1. What was James D. B. De Bow's opinion of the Freedmen's Bureau?

  2. Using the document and the discussion in your textbook, do you think that De Bow was justified in his assessment of the Freedmen's Bureau? Why or why not?

  3. According to De Bow, how had conditions changed in the South with regard to the labor system, the role of women, and opportunities for education or religious fellowship?

  4. How does knowing who De Bow was help you understand his view on the Freedmen's Bureau and his description of conditions in the South after the Civil War?

  5. Using the document, what can you predict about the emerging labor system in the South? Support your prediction.

. . . Question. What is your opinion of the necessity or utility of the Freedmen's Bureau, or of any agency of that kind?

Answer. I think if the whole regulation of the negroes, or freedmen, were left to the people of the communities in which they live, it will be administered for the best interest of the negroes as well as of the white men. I think there is a kindly feeling on the part of the planters towards the freedmen. They are not held at all responsible for anything that has happened. They are looked upon as the innocent cause. In talking with a number of planters, I remember some of them telling me they were succeeding very well with their freedmen, having got a preacher to preach to them and a teacher to teach them, believing it was for the interest of the planter to make the negro feel reconciled; for, to lose his services as a laborer for even a few months would be very disastrous. The sentiment prevailing is, that it is for the interest of the employer to teach the negro, to educate his children, to provide a preacher for him, and to attend to his physical wants. And I may say I have not seen any exception to that feeling in the south. Leave the people to themselves, and they will manage very well. The Freedmen's Bureau, or any agency to interfere between the freedman and his former master, is only productive of mischief. There are constant appeals from one to the other and continual annoyances. It has a tendency to create dissatisfaction and disaffection on the part of the laborer, and is in every respect in its result most unfavorable to the system of industry that is now being organized under the new order of things in the south. . . .

Question. What is your opinion as to the relative advantages . . . of the present system of free labor, as compared with that of slavery as it heretofore existed in this country?

Answer. If the negro would work, the present system is much cheaper. If we can get the same amount of labor from the same persons, there is no doubt of the result in respect to economy. Whether the same amount of labor can be obtained, it is too soon yet to decide. We must allow one summer to pass first. They are working now very well on the plantations. That is the general testimony. The negro women are not disposed to field work as they formerly were, and I think there will be less work from them in the future than there has been in the past. The men are rather inclined to get their wives into other employment, and I think that will be the constant tendency, just as it is with the whites. Therefore, the real number of agricultural laborers will be reduced. I have no idea if the efficiency of those who work will be increased. If we can only keep up their efficiency to the standard before the war, it will be better for the south, without doubt, upon the mere money question, because it is cheaper to hire the negro than to own him. Now a plantation can be worked without any outlay of capital by hiring the negro and hiring the plantation. . . .

Question. What arrangements are generally made among the landholders and the black laborers in the south?

Answer. I think they generally get wages. A great many persons, however, think it better to give them an interest in the crops. That is getting to be very common. . . .